Strictly a DH, Matsui feeling fresh
Rehabilitated left knee creating no problems in spring for veteran
KISSIMMEE, Fla. -- Hideki Matsui still hasn't put his surgically repaired left knee to the full test, saying instead that he is slowly but surely building up steam as he runs the bases.
The 34-year-old slugger enjoyed a well-deserved break on Wednesday, resting after becoming the first Yankee to play in four consecutive games this spring. Driving the baseball and feeling no pain, Matsui is even more encouraged that he will be able to return as a productive player.
"I think it should be fine," Matsui said through an interpreter. "As long as I don't have any setbacks and I don't have any huge problems with my knees, it's not something that I'm concerned about."
Entering his seventh and perhaps final season with the Yankees, Matsui has has seen his role change. Arriving in the United States with an impressive consecutive-games streak on his ironman resume, Matsui has been slowed in recent seasons by injuries, enduring two successive years of offseason knee surgeries.
But after a cautious start this spring, Matsui appears on track for Opening Day. Matsui stroked a two-run double and a two-run homer on Tuesday against the Pirates, giving him five hits in 17 at-bats (.294). More importantly, he is playing without discomfort.
"The fact that my body's getting used to it -- my knees are getting used to it -- it's a good sign," Matsui said.
Matsui's legs have even proven a little too frisky for the Yankees at times. On one recent spring morning, manager Joe Girardi had to shoo Matsui out of the outfield, discouraging him from putting his knee at risk by shagging fly balls.
That ban is going to continue when the Yankees head north, relegating Matsui's outfield glove to a locker ornament until about mid-June, when the Yankees will lose the designated hitter for Interleague Play. Matsui said that he understands.
"Obviously, how he plays me is definitely his decision," Matsui said of Girardi. "I believe he says that with good intentions to try and protect my knees. My role -- my job -- is to make sure I prepare well so I can DH. Also, in the event that I have to play the field, I have to make sure I prepare for that, too. That's really what I do and what I can do."
Until the day when head trainer Gene Monahan reevaluates Matsui and proclaims him fit for defensive duty, Girardi said that Matsui will be viewed as both a DH and a vital piece of New York's lineup.
"We need him -- he's a great RBI guy," Girardi said. "We need him to do what he does. Matty's a professional hitter. He's going to give you a great at-bat; lefties don't bother him. He's really important to our lineup."
Girardi said that the Yankees will have to carefully monitor Matsui's situation moving forward, giving the manager just one more item to cross off his daily checklist.
"It's something we're going to have to watch all year long with Matty," Girardi said. "He played a lot of years on [artificial] turf. It's something that we're going to have to be aware of, check with him pretty constantly, [see] how he's doing."
Matsui's status as a no-defense player creates a crunch for the Yankees, who would also like to work Jorge Posada and Johnny Damon into the DH role at times. Posada is conservatively being asked to catch 100 to 110 games, and Girardi believed that brief stints as a DH helped keep Damon's legs fresh and productive last season.
"We've talked about how there might be some minor sacrifices you have to make as a player for the betterment of the team," Girardi said. "Everyone wants to play every day. I understand that. I wanted to play every day. Sometimes it just doesn't work out that way. But most of the guys, they're going to get plenty of at-bats."
Due $13 million in the final year of his contract, Matsui said that he has not considered that this might be his last opportunity with the Yankees.
His United States career opened in 2003 with a trip to the World Series, where the Yankees lost in six games to the Marlins. New York has thus far been unable to make it back to the season's biggest stage.
Matsui said that his "ultimate goal" remains to finally grab that elusive World Series championship ring, and he focuses more on that than considering what tomorrow may bring.
"I don't really think about anything beyond this season," Matsui said. "The only goal right now is to win a championship. I've always taken it that way every year, year by year."
Bryan Hoch is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.